28 September 2014

Over the Rot Grätli from Bannalp to Engelberg

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T3
Height gain: 1045 metres
Height loss: 1160 metres

Bannalp – Bannalper Schonegg – Rot Grätli – Rugghubelhütte - Ristis

Ever since I first visited Bannalp three years ago, the route from there over the Rot Grätli to Engelberg has figured high on my to-do list. On that occasion in September 2011 my friend and I were tempted, but having already done a tough walk the previous day and wanting to ascend Chaiserstuel, we opted for the easier descent down towards Isenthal. Now though, a chance mention of Bannalp during a coffee-break conversation about mountain lakes suddenly brings the idea back to the forefront of my mind. On the train returning from the previous day's hike to the Sunnig Grat, I decide to abandon my initial plan to go to the Emmental on Sunday, and set my sights on this walk instead.

The Rot Grätli is not known to be an especially easy hike, with a level of difficulty variously listed as T3 or T4, depending on which reports you read and which maps you look at. I am fully aware that I will encounter snow and passages where I will need to use my hands, and suspect that it may all be a bit too much for me and that I will probably end up ingloriously turning back. Not to worry though, I have already had one excellent day's walking this weekend and am prepared to take the risk of having to modify my Sunday plans on the fly if it gets too difficult.

One of the many great things about living in Lucerne is that you can get a train at eight in the morning and be at somewhere like Bannalp, way up in the mountains, by nine. I get up at seven, have a quick breakfast, a rather chilly seven-minute walk to the station, buy a coffee and am still sitting on the 8:10 to Engelberg several minutes before it is due to leave. The train is crowded: half of my carriage is taken up with a big group of Japanese tourists, the other half with noisily chattering walkers and climbers. Opposite me, one girl stands out from the crowd: bare feet up on the seat, one ankle bandaged with bright green strapping, no hiking gear, listening to music on headphones, she looks totally out of place among all the people kitted out in mountain gear. Later in the morning, I will unexpectedly see her again and realise that she too was very much part of the outdoor crowd.

At Wolfenschiessen, almost everyone except for the barefoot girl and the Japanese tourists gets off the train. The post bus waiting outside the station looks totally inadequate for the number of passengers; all the seats are already taken. Somehow – I do not really know how – everyone manages to get on, and we set off for the thankfully short ride up the winding road to Oberrickenbach, packed in like sardines. By virtue of being one of the last to get on the bus, I am one of the first off, which gives me a lucky advantage in terms of being in the right place in the queue for the cable car up to Bannalp. The ten-minute cable car ride is quite an experience: a long first stretch that climbs painfully slowly up a high cliff face towards what appears to be the top… but above that initial cliff, the car goes over a pylon and continues for a long time up an almost equally steep slope, almost brushing the branches of the conifers below. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Looking down on the Bannalpsee
All of this has taken me no more than an hour, and by 9:15 I am ready to start walking. The weather does not seem to have quite attained yesterday's sheer perfection: it's a degree or two cooler, there is a slight breeze and wispy cirrus clouds in the sky suggest that things may start to change over the next day or two. It's still pretty good though, with the same incredible quality of light as yesterday. The path climbs slowly at first, passing below the cables of a ski-lift and above the Chrüzhütte, where the smell of a wood-burning fire and smoke from the chimney suggests that the night was chilly up here. I repeatedly overtake and am overtaken by a couple who were sitting next to me on the train, as we stop for photos, drinks and rests. Down below, the Bannalpsee is still in the shadow of the Walenstöcke, an impressive wall of rock that bounds the valley on its southern side. The path has been considerably improved since my last visit: back then, the last section up to the saddle at Bannalper Schonegg was an awkward, cattle-churned, eroded mess, but the path has been reconstructed and is now much easier underfoot. Although I am deliberately going slowly to save myself for the challenges ahead I make good progress, and after an hour and a quarter am already at Bannalper Schonegg, at an altitude of 2250 metres. Five hundred metres uphill in 75 minutes is not bad going at all.

At Bannalper Schonegg
I stop here to drink and to eat some dried fruit and nuts before starting the more challenging part of the walk. I ask a woman coming the other way if there are any real difficulties – a pointless question of course, as the notion of difficulty is entirely subjective. There is some snow at the top of the pass, she tells me, but the sun is already on it and has softened it, making it easy and safe to cross.

I set off again along a narrow path that runs downhill at first crossing steep slopes of grey scree above a stony valley. Gradually the landscape becomes wilder as the path drops down into a grassy bowl surrounded by cliffs and snowfields below the summits of the Ruchstock and Hasenstock. The path appears to be heading for a steep gully between these two peaks: I hope that the way ahead is not up there and an very relieved when it swings to the left, towards easier-looking ground.

The landscape becomes wilder... the path climbs up below the mountain on the left of the picture
The grassy floor of this impressive place is the last vegetation I will see for a while. As I begin the 300-metre climb up towards the Rot Grätli, the last traces of grass give way to an entirely mineral landscape, a desert of dark grey rocks and rubble. Red and white paint flashes mark the way and need to be followed carefully, for there is little or no trace of any path here. In foggy conditions, you would need to be very attentive to the waymarks, as it would be easy to miss the path and get completely lost in the stony wilderness. The path, such as it is, now seems to be heading round into another valley, as yet unseen. I climb up between boulders at the base of cliffs, turn a shoulder of the mountain and reach a flatter area at about 2400 metres, where the way ahead becomes more easily identifiable. Large, flat boulders make this a natural place for a rest and another intake of food and drink, and I am not the only person who stops here.

The Rot Grätli comes into view
Setting off southwards again, now I can see all the way up the valley to the Rot Grätli, the pass over which I will have to cross if I am to reach Engelberg later in the day. The landscape looks inhospitable; the valley runs up across black slabs towards the twin summits of the Engelberger Rotstock and the Hasenstock, its upper left-hand side covered by a large snowfield or possibly the last remnants of an old glacier. The valley gradually rises in a series of rocky steps until it reaches the final slope of snow running up to the ridge that connects the two summits: this ridge is the Rot Grätli. Ridiculously intimidated by this landscape, I find myself slowing right down, as though to put off the inevitable moment when I will come up against some impassable obstacle and be forced to turn back in panic. And yet the route cannot be so difficult: there are plenty of people coming down the other way, including quite a few families with children of no more than eight or nine. I reach the first of the rock steps, maybe two metres high, where a fixed rope helps me haul myself up the smooth, black surface to the flatter ground above. 

Fixed ropes facilitate the way up several rocky steps
Down the valley towards me, moving at a speed which I would never have believed possible in such rough terrain, comes a trail-runner. As the runner gets closer, hopping over rocks and dodging obstacles, I realise that it is the bare-footed girl from the train, no longer barefoot of course, but instantly recognisable from her clothing and the green strapping around her ankle. She smiles as she dashes past, then is off away down the path and out of sight. She must have stayed on the train to Engelberg and now, just two hours later, has already completed almost three quarters of a route that will take me close to six hours altogether… most impressive.

As I get closer to the valley head, the going becomes steeper. The landscape is a jumble of slabs and boulders, in which it seems unlikely that any route could work its way up to the ridge. Appearances can be deceptive though, and the path remains unexpectedly easy, never in any way exposed, twisting and turning around boulders and shoulders of rock. Easily-angled ledges are used to gain height until finally, I stand at the foot of the only real challenge I will face, a rocky chimney some four or five metres high, which has to be climbed. This is decision time: my golden rule is always "don't go up something that you would not be able to get back down", and this chimney looks close to that limit. What sways me in the direction of continuing is the fact that the ridge is only a few metres above me now, and I can see that the terrain above the chimney is less steep. Up I go, using a fixed rope to help me, and very soon I have passed the obstacle with no real difficulty. Only a few zigzags over shaly ground and the final snowfield remain, and the snowfield proves to be easy, its gradient such that a slip would have no more serious consequences than a wet bottom. Even so, I would say that this is an end-of-season route, as the last hundred metres or so would be a more serious prospect earlier in the summer, with more snow to contend with.

The most challenging part of the route

Almost there
Three hours after leaving the cable car at Bannalp, I reach the 2559-metre crest of the Rot Grätli. The snow is confined to the shady northern valley; the top of the ridge and its entire southern flank are sun-drenched and completely snow-free. I find a flat rock a little way above the lowest point of the ridge, and settle down to have lunch and admire the view. 

At the Rot Grätli
The landscape on the southern side is very different from the valley up which I have climbed. For a start, the rock here is a brownish-red colour, and I can understand how the place got its "red ridge" name. The valley on this side is much broader, running westwards down towards Engelberg, its opposite flank a giant natural slag-heap of layered shale that rises up to a long line of vertical cliffs. To the east, the higher slopes above the valley are covered by the white Griessenfirn glacier, while the end of the valley is closed off by the Engelberger Rotstock and the Wissigstock, both summits close to 2,900 metres in altitude. As I sit there having lunch people come and go, most of them coming up from the southern side and going in the opposite direction from me: the route would certainly be more difficult going this way.

Time now for the descent towards Engelberg. The path drops down steeply but easily across brown stony slopes, then follows a series of broad, slabby ledges some way above the pathless valley floor. The brown rubble gives way to horizontal limestone pavements and then, very suddenly, the mineral landscape gives up the ghost and I am walking on grass again. The views from here are wonderful: the Titlis and its snowy satellites are up ahead, while the view back up valley towards the glaciers and the Rotstock becomes wider and more impressive with every step. 

Looking back up to the Rot Grätli from the path to the Rugghubelhütte
Forty-five minutes' walking from my lunch spot bring me to the Swiss Alpine Club's Rugghubelhütte, where there is another very sudden and dramatic change in the scenery. Here, the view back up towards the head of the valley disappears for good, hidden by the hill on top of which the hut is built. And up ahead, the valley comes to an abrupt end, plunging steeply and unexpectedly down towards Engelberg, more than a thousand metres below. Whereas my attention had been mainly held until now by the mountains and glaciers eastwards, from here onwards it's the panorama south and westwards that demands attention.

The view from the Rugghubelhütte isn't bad...
From the Rugghubelhütte, the path descends steeply towards the valley and the foot of the Rigidalstock, levelling out at Planggenstafel, 1964 metres, where it crosses a stream on a wooden bridge. Just upstream, two farm buildings are almost hidden beneath a pile of great boulders, the place no doubt chosen to offer protection from avalanches and rockfalls. Continuing westwards, the path now traverses almost horizontally above very steep cliffs that plunge way, way down into the valley of End der Welt. I was down there a couple of months ago, and remember looking up at these same cliffs and thinking "There's absolutely no way up there". Seen from above, this impression is more than confirmed: there is no way down either! This path is airy in places, and would require some care in slippery conditions: though the path is reasonably wide, there are any number of places where you would be ill advised to fall over the edge: the grass slopes above the vertical cliffs are steep, and it would be difficult to arrest a fall. 

The path below the Rugghubelhütte is airy
Gross Spannort and Klein Spannort, after which the street I live in is named
One final steep drop brings me to Rigidalstafel, where there is a rustic mountain restaurant. Beyond here, the remainder of the walk is on tarred farm roads which eventually bring me to the cable car station at Ristis. I could walk down to Engelberg in another hour, but I know the path well from previous visits and therefore feel justified in using the cable car instead. It has been a good weekend for cable cars; this is my fourth such ride of the weekend and, in contrast to the other three, this is a big, industrial-scale car built to carry 60 tourists at a time from Engelberg up to the viewpoints above. Five minutes later I an back down in the valley, a short walk from the village centre, the station and the conveniently-placed and sunny terrace of the Hotel Bellevue, where I enjoy a beer while waiting for the next train home. It has been a fantastic walk from start to finish, a fitting conclusion to a really excellent late summer weekend. 

27 September 2014

Sunny day, Sunnig Grat

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 860 metres
Height loss: 860 metres

Arnisee – Sunnig Grat – Langschälengrätli – Furt - Arnisee

Sunnig Grat, Sunny Ridge… the name says it all. September has done its usual magic, and has saved its best weather until last. At the very end of the worst summer that anyone here can remember, we are finally rewarded with an absolutely perfect weekend: not too hot, not too cold, not a cloud in the sky.

I get a crowded train to Erstfeld, first through a chilly-looking early morning landscape, with mist hanging over the lake and stretching in long thin bands along the steep sides of the Rigi. A short bus ride up the Gotthard pass road takes me to the roadside hamlet of Intschi. From here, one of those tiny cable cars that are to be found all over central Switzerland takes me 700 metres up the steep valley side to the Arnisee, passing over trees, fields and farmhouses on its way.

Surrounded by trees against a mountain backdrop at an altitude of 1370 metres, the Arnisee is a picture-postcard gem of a lake. It’s almost too good to be true, and I am not altogether surprised when I discover from an information board that it is a man-made lake, created in the 1920s as part of a local hydro-electric scheme. The lake is not very big, it only takes me a quarter of an hour or so to follow the muddy path that leads round to its far end, where a blue rowing-boat (rather oversized for the amount of water available to row on) adds another element to the foreground. The good weather has brought plenty of walkers out, and every ten minutes or so, the cable car delivers another eight people who soon disperse around the banks of the lake and its surrounding woodland.

The way up to the Sunnig Grat begins in the forest on the lake’s western side. The path is steep from the outset, climbing in tight zigzags, the blue water of the lake visible between the tall trunks of the trees, gradually receding. Underfoot, the path is often a mass of exposed tree-roots which, in wet weather, would make the going slippery. Even in the shade of the forest, the morning has quickly warmed up. I overtake two women who have stopped to remove excess layers of clothing: one of them, an attractive redhead, responds to my greeting with a whole speech in local dialect. Death threat or marriage proposal, she could have been making either; sadly, I understand nothing of what she says, so just smile and keep going.

At about 1750 metres, the path emerges above tree level, and the view opens out in all directions. Ahead of me, westwards, is the deep Leutschachtal valley, its far end closed by an imposing array of rock faces. To the north-west, beyond a foreground of alpenrose and autumn-brown heather, the Windgällen range is the main feature of a view that stretches up to the Hüfifirn glacier in the far distance above the Maderanertal. In a marshy hollow a little lake, nameless on the map, draws the eye towards this impressive backdrop.

A nameless little lake with the Windgällen in the background
It takes me about an hour and three quarters to reach the Sunniggrätli-Hutte, a little stone-built hut at the foot of the final climb to the ridge, overlooking yet another perfect mountain lake. Another quarter of an hour brings me onto the ridge itself, from where it is a short walk to the cross that marks the summit. The path along the ridge twists and turns over and around several rocky outcrops, dips down into a hollow, then climbs up the final steep, rocky step to the small summit. It is crowded here and, although it’s definitely time for lunch, I decide to find a more peaceful spot. I retrace my steps back down the ridge, then contour round above the hut until I come to a broad, flat area covered in heather and parched grass. 

A hundred metres or so off the path, I sit down on the grass to enjoy one of the best lunch breaks of the summer. Admittedly, the soup that I have made from leftover vegetables is not one of my finest: too salty, and given a rather odd, bitter taste by the predominant ingredient of cabbage. My sandwiches are tasty though, and the 45-minute siesta with which I follow them is a real delight. Lying there in the warm grass and daydreaming, I come very close to falling asleep, and I have to make a real effort at half past two to force myself back into action again.

A short but steep climb now takes me up to the ridge above my picnic place, the highest point of the walk at 2095 metres. The abrupt end of the ridge sticks out like the prow of a ship, offering vertiginous views down into the Leutschachtal way below. From this point, a stony path drops steeply down into the valley, first running across stony slopes below high cliffs, then twisting and turning more steeply down until it reaches the valley floor at the base of a rushing waterfall. A stony side valley runs steeply up from here towards the foot of the 3100-metre Krönten, sharp pinnacles of rock above steep slopes of snow. The sun has dipped behind one of the closer peaks, throwing half the valley into shadow and accentuating the bright, autumn colours of the still sunlit half.

On the path down into the Leutschachtal
Now I turn south-eastwards, following a broad track that follows the valley downhill back towards my starting point. Up ahead, the dominant feature of the view is the huge pyramid of the Bristen, its top dusted with what looks for all the world like icing sugar. The late afternoon light is beautiful, everything seems to have taken on an extra layer of colour which was absent earlier in the summer. Back at the Arnisee, families are picknicking on the grass beside the deep blue water. A large rock mimics the shape of the Bristen, which rises up in the background behind a row of conifers. 

The Arnisee and the Bristen
I stop at the restaurant at the top of the cable car for a refreshing beer on a sunny, panoramic terrace. After a pleasant half hour, it's time to get the little cable car back down into the valley. The cabin only takes eight people at a time: when I arrive, there are already three people in front of me, and a family of five arrives just behind me. I give up my place to allow the family to travel down together; after all, I will only have to wait seven minutes for the next one. In doing so though, I arrive down at the bottom one minute after the bus has left, and it looks very much like I will have a 59-minute wait for the next one and will be forced to have another beer. Fortunately, a German couple who were in the cable car with me offer me a lift down to the station at Erstfeld. I get carefully into their huge, new-looking Audi, trying very hard not to make any contact between my dirty shoes and the light beige upholstery of the seats. The couple is on holiday here from Munich, and as we drive down, I mention that I spent two rather rainy weeks hiking in Bavaria in August. Hearing this, the woman curiously asks me if I am retired. I think this is the first time someone has ever mistaken me for ten years older than I really am… still, it has been a perfect day, even if I will have to examine myself for grey hairs and wrinkles when I get home!

07 September 2014

A Sunday stroll from the Melchsee to the Engstlensee

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 350 metres
Height loss: 350 metres

Melchsee-Frutt – Tannensee – Tannalp – Engstlenalp – Engstlensee and back

A more gentle walk today, after yesterday's excursion to the Sidelhorn. A friend from work has a weekend guest from Germany, and they want to do something easy but scenic. I have a ticket for a concert at four in the afternoon, and am also happy to something short and not too strenuous. This pleasant walk is part of the well-known "four lakes walk" which starts from Melchsee-Frutt and goes to Engelberg via a series of mountain lakes: Melchsee, Tannensee, Engstlensee and Trüebsee. For time and logistic reasons, we decide to amputate the last of the four lakes, and do our own "three lakes" variation. We go by car to Stöckalp, and take the cable-car up to Melchsee-Frutt, where the temperature is significantly higher than the forecast would have us believe. Our German visitor came without hiking equipment, but my friend has lent her an old pair of boots which should be more than good enough for such an easy walk. 

The Melchsee is a lovely lake, provided you avoid looking at the ugly resort buildings that disfigure its northern edge. Looking towards its southern side, white cumulus clouds are reflected in the still surface of the water, with a backdrop of sombre mountains still wreathed in darker overnight clouds that have not yet cleared. A notice wards us that the path to the Tannensee has suffered from this summer's rainy weather, and that it is "sodden" and only suitable for those with good footwear. True, the path is vaguely muddy in places, but it is still among the drier surfaces on which I have walked this year!

Leaving the pylons and cables of the ski area behind, we climb gently uphill along a marshy valley where the colours already suggest that autumn is not far away, and soon come to our second lake, the Tannensee. This is an artificial lake, its western end blocked by a low, grass-covered dam, across which we walk to follow the lake's southern bank. Fishermen are standing on rocks here, enjoying their hobby in what, it has to be said, is an absolutely perfect location: what more could one wish for as a backdrop while waiting for a bite? 

At the far end of the lake, we walk past the restaurant, the whitewashed chapel and the few houses at Tannalp, then begin the descent to our third lake, the Engstlensee. This is the most "mountainous" part of the route, as the path works its way down a steep rock face, using a grassy band between cliffs that rear up above and plunge down below. The way down is secured with a cable, although the path is a metre or more wide and not in any way dangerous. Down below, the lovely Gental valley runs away westwards towards the peaks of the Bernese Oberland, still shrouded in cloud but doing their best to break through.

The path from Tannalp down to Engstlenalp
At this point, a very odd thing happens. Those of you who read this blog regularly will remember that last weekend, one of my hiking partners lost the sole of her right boot in the middle of a hike. I had never seen this happen before: now it happens again. Our German visitor's borrowed hiking boots, which have not been worn for two years, decide to self-destruct. Not only does the sole of her right boot fall off very suddenly: ten minutes later, the same thing happens to the other boot. The only common denominator I can find in all this is my friend from the office, present on both occasions. I will have to be very careful next time we go hiking together!

With botched-up boots, we continue to Engstlenalp and its hotel. I was last here in August 2010 in horribly wet conditions; it's nice to see the place in sunlight today. As we walk up the hill towards the lake, I point out the annexe where I had my poltergeist incident while walking the Alpine Pass Route four years ago.

To get the best views of the Engstlensee would mean walking up to its far and, which we cannot be bothered to do, so we just have a quick look at its blue-green water and the pretty reflections made by the trees on the far side, before returning to the Hotel Engstlenalp for lunch. My two companions have Rösti with cheese and fried eggs respectively; I go for a "Käseschnitte mit Zwiebeln, Speck und Ei", a delicious and totally unhealthy mixture of melted cheese, ham, and onions on a bread base, baked in the oven and topped with a fried egg and picked vegetables. All washed down with beer, it goes without saying. Mmmmm… 

Looking across to the Bernese Oberland from Tannalp
I am feeling far too happy with life by now to want to rush back for my concert, so we decide to take the rest of the afternoon slowly. This is probably a good thing, as the initial climb back up from Engstlenalp to Tannalp is quite a challenge with such full stomachs. Additional bits and pieces continue to fall off the borrowed boots, and one of the soles is discarded in a litter bin. We decide to stay on the road for the rest of the way back: at least our visitor will be walking on a dry, flat surface and will not have to contend with mud seeping in and stones breaking through the internal foam which has now become the external layer of her footwear. 

A hint of autumn
The light is completely different now compared to this morning, with the late afternoon sun accentuating the autumnal atmosphere. We arrive back at Melchsee-Frutt at four o'clock: twenty kilometres away in Lucerne my concert is starting, but I really don't mind at all.

06 September 2014

September on the Sidelhorn

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T3
Height gain: 700 metres
Height loss: 700 metres

Grimselpass – Husegghütte – Sidelhorn – Triebtenseeli - Grimselpass

Ah, September at last! My favourite month for walking in the mountains, with all its promise of crisp mornings, limpid air and colours accentuated by the lower sun. As if to confirm my optimism, the month has started with a whole weekend of perfect hiking weather, a real rarity this summer.

Today's walk brings me to my highest point of the summer. The Sidelhorn is a dark pyramid of rock set up above the Grimselpass, right on the border between the Bernese Oberland and Valais. I start by getting an early train from Lucerne over the Brünigpass to Meiringen. On the almost empty train, a railway employee is working his way through the carriage, emptying the litter-bins into a big black dustbin bag. Having just thrown away a paper coffee cup, I helpfully retrieve it from the bin and hand it to the man to save him the effort. He tut-tuts annoyedly, makes me put my coffee cup back in the bin… then takes the bin and empties it into his big black bag. Oh well, at least I tried…

In Meiringen (which I am amused to learn is called "Meringue" in French), I change to a post bus that climbs up the Haslital valley, then winds its way up numerous hairpins to reach the Grimselpass at 2,164 metres. Starting the walk at such a high altitude may not be common, but it does have its advantages, not least the fact that the summit is only 600 metres higher up.

The pass is not the loveliest of places, it has to be said. Crossed by a major road, it is popular with motorists and motorcyclists out for a drive, and as such is a crowded and noisy place. The area is also used intensely for hydro-electric power generation, and a fair number of dams and pylons add another level of human intrusion to the landscape. Even without all this human intervention, the Grimsel would be a barren place: there is not a tree in sight, the only green in the landscape is provided by the lichen that has attached itself to the rock.

The Totesee, at the Grimselpass
Leaving the bustle of the pass, I set off as soon as I have finished plastering myself with sun cream, climbing quickly above the lugubriously-named Totesee (or "dead lake"). The path is steep and rough from the outset, climbing in tight zigzags up and away from the pass, the noise of the traffic gradually diminishing but never quite disappearing altogether. In many places, large flat stones have been laid on the path to form semi-natural staircases; in other places, the way up crosses huge, easily-angled slabs of light grey rock. Behind me, to the east, wisps of cloud cling to the wall of mountains bordering the Haslital: somewhere behind those mountains is the immense whiteness of the Trift glacier and the high Alpine territory that stretches away to the Dammastock. Ahead and below me, the milky grey-green waters of the Grimselsee look cold and impenetrable. In a marshy hollow, a little pool bordered with cotton grass makes an attractive foreground for a photo of the mountains away beyond the lake.

Not far above this pool, at an altitude of 2,441 metres, I reach the Husegghütte, a long, low stone hut set up on a hump as if to make the most of the views to the north and the east. Here, for the first time, the giants of the Bernese Oberland come into view, most prominent among them being the Lauteraarhorn, standing out from the rest by being covered in what looks like recently fallen snow. The Sidelhorn, my destination, also comes properly into view now. The way up is clear: the mountain's north-east ridge runs almost down to where I am standing. Clear maybe… easy certainly not, as the ridge looks steep, dark and forbidding.

The summit of the Sidelhorn. The route follows the ridge from right to left.
Oberaar glacier
In reality though, there are no particular difficulties between here and the summit. The way up becomes increasingly rocky, but there is almost always a clear path to follow. The last 50 metres or so are the steepest: here, the use of the hands is needed for me to hoist myself up some big rocky steps. There is no real danger though, the ridge is not in any way exposed, and it proves to be an entertaining little scramble to reach the summit with its big, iron cross.

The top
The view from the Sidelhorn's summit is amazing, looking as it does right into the heart of two of the Bernese Oberland's wildest glacial valleys. To the west is the snow-covered Oberaar glacier, running down to the lake of the same name. Further north, beyond the end of the Grimselsee, the mostly rubble-covered Lauteraar glacier runs almost flat deep into the heart of the mountains, surrounded by the Oberland's highest peaks.

Lateraarhorn and Lauteraar glacier
The rocky summit of the Sidelhorn is crowded on this sunny Saturday, so does not make for an especially peaceful place for lunch. There is a large group up here with seven or eight young children, which of course generates a fair bit of noise. "Caroline, don't go over there, it's dangerous!" "Manuel, take that sandwich over to Annina!" "Aaron, do you want a piece of chocolate? Yes, I know you don't like milk chocolate, this is plain!" "Caroline, I said DON'T go over there"… and so on. It's too rocky for a siesta anyway – there is not a square metre that isn't covered by sharp rock – so I finish my sandwiches and set off down the south-west ridge.

This is a somewhat more serious prospect than the ridge by which I came up. On the way up, there was always a path of sorts. Here, there is nothing but a chaos of boulders, as though the world's biggest dumper truck had emptied a vast load of rubble on top of the mountain. Although there is no danger of falling over the edge of any precipices, the going is painfully slow. Finding footholds and handholds is not always easy, in fact just working out where to go next is not always easy. Many of the rocks are unstable, getting from one to the next sometimes involves a big stretch, and in more than one place, big holes in between boulders await unwary legs. It takes me a slow, careful half an hour to reach the saddle at 2,689 metres from where an easier path branches off to the right. 

The south-west ridge is a chaos of boulders
Easier maybe, but still uncomfortable, the path drops down steeply through loose rubble towards the little Triebtenseeli, whose dark blue water contrasts surprisingly with the milky glacial meltwater of the bigger Grimselsee just behind. Now the going becomes much easier: above the lake I find a good path which runs eastwards below the northern slopes of the Sidelhorn, back towards my starting point. Climbing steadily at first, the path soon levels out and eventually brings me back to the Husegghütte. I have an hour to make it back down to the Grimselpass before the bus leaves: half an hour proves to be enough. A short walk maybe – only four hours – but one which has posed one or two technical challenges and which, for the first time this summer, has given me the impression of having reached a proper mountain summit.

Contrasting lakes

30 August 2014

A night at the Voralphütte

Time: 2 days
Grading: T2 (one section T4)
Height gain: 1450 metres
Height loss: 1150 metres

Göschenen – Voralphütte - Wiegen

A group of seven of us set off for this two-day walk with a night up in the mountains. I meet a friend at the station in Lucerne, and we join another friend on the train; she has travelled across from Neuchâtel for the weekend. Two more are waiting for us at the station in Göschenen, having arrived on a different train, and the last two arrive shortly after by car.

It is a cool, cloudy morning (this is Göschenen after all), but I am very pleasantly surprised by the weather, the forecast having led me to expect a good soaking at least for the first couple of hours. But the overnight rain has moved away, and the cloud seems to be lifting fast.

For the first hour, we follow an easy path along the bottom of the Göschenertal. Wet grass alternates with squelchy mud, and our boots soon lose any illusion of cleanness. Below the hamlet of Wiggen, we cross the river and the valley road, and start to climb up a narrow, often slippery forest path. In a clearing, the window-boxes of an old stone and wooded chalet are ablaze with red, orange and yellow flowers. A bit higher up, we meet the road for the last time as it hairpins its way up the steep-sided valley.

Now the path continues up in wide zigzags, at an easy gradient, follwing a mountain stram that tumbles down over a chaos of light-coloured stone blocks. At the far end of each zigzag, the path brings us close up to the base of high, slabby cliffs whose stone is shining in the midday sun. The day has become warm, with significant amounts of blue sky overhead. At a place where the path briefly flattens out, a large, sloping boulder on the bank of the rushing river provides a pretty, if rather noisy place to have lunch. All around are huge boulders, some almost black while others, especially those in the bed of the river, are almost white in colour. From a distance, it is hard to tell that they are made of granite; they could equally well be polystyrene, snow or huge meringues.

A most attractive spot for lunch
Huge boulders of white stone
A few more zigzags bring us up above the tree line, and now the valley broadens out as the gradient eases. Up ahead, we get our first view of the 3,500-metre Sustenhorn, with glaciers tumbling down from it towards the valley at an impossibly steep angle: you have to wonder why they do not simply snap off under the weight of the ice and come crashing down into the valley. Sadly, this will also be our last view of the Sustenhorn in its entirety, as the higher we progress into the valley and into the afternoon, the lower the cloud comes down. At this point, the sole of my Neuchâtel friend's right boot decides to part company with the rest of the boot's structure, and starts to flap about with every step she takes. A bootlace wound around underneath her foot and tied on top does enough to get her to the hut.

The Sustenhorn and the Voralp valley
By the time we reach the Voralphütte at about four o'clock, the cloud base is not far above us and it has become sufficiently cold for us to retreat inside rather than staying out on the terrace. The hut warden provides us with a welcoming cup of tea, then shows us to a very comfortable ten-bed dormitory: the hut is not fully booked, he tells us, so the other three beds will not be occupied.

Back downstairs for a beer, then a second beer goes the same way as the first. Beer, laughter, a warm atmosphere in the wood-panelled room, and in no time at all it is time for a very tasty dinner. A chicken soup with almonds and a definite curry flavour, a big bowl of salad with a delicious sauce, then a hearty main course of beef stew and mashed potatoes… just what you need after a few hours' walking. We stay up until quite late, talking, playing Uno and drinking wine until finally, at half past ten, tiredness gets the upper hand and we turn in for the night. 

The Voralphütte, a very comfortable place to spend a night in the mountains
Sunday morning is cool and cloudy, with no summits in view and rain forecast for the afternoon. Over breakfast, the warden tells us that the hut is only 25 years old (from its traditional design I had thought it was much older), the previous building having been completely swept away by an avalanche. I ask about easy hiking options around the hut, wanting to do a bit more than just walk back down the way we came up. But the possibilities up here are limited: all the paths from the hut are blue-and-white marked alpine routes, with the exception of the one up which we came yesterday. The warden suggests that we could go further up the valley to the start of the glacier, an easy half an hour's walk. Or, he says, there is the two-hour "Panoramaweg" which, although an alpine route, is at the easier end of the scale.

We decide to at least go as far as the glacier. Two of the group will anyway not be able to go any further, as they have to be back down in the valley by early afternoon for a colleague's 50th birthday event. The hut warden has provided my boot-stricken friend with superglue and string, the combination of which is remarkably successful in holding her footwear together for the rest of the day.

It does not take long for the landscape to become totally mineral. Within ten minutes of leaving the hut, we are walking in a desert-like landscape of stones, between dark, rocky valley sides that rise up before disappearing into the gloom of the low cloud. Occasionally, a timid ray of sun lights up this stony wilderness, highlighting the incredibly diverse colour of the boulders and pebbles that make up the landscape. Ahead, the pass of the Sustenjoch beckons temptingly, but to get there, and down the other side to the bus stop at the Sustenpass is a serious mountain expedition, well beyond my capabilities.

A mineral wasteland leads up to the Sustenjoch
By the time we reach the place where the Panoramaweg branches off, the weather seems to be improving, with some blue sky in evidence. The five of us who do not have any time constraints decide to give it a try; after all, we can always turn back if it gets too difficult. Up we go, following blue and white waymarks painted on rocks. The going is easy at first, as the narrow path angles up across steep but not dangerous slopes. Bit by bit though, the sensation of a big drop not far away to the right increases. The path steepens, becomes narrower, crosses an area of slippery grass, soaking wet from overnight rain. We cross a first stream easily, round a rocky shoulder on the edge of the void, then climb up in steep zigzags to cross a second, somewhat larger stream where keeping dry feet is more of a challenge. Now the path becomes significantly more difficult, angling up across exposed slopes towards a line of crags. There is a definite feeling that we must be almost at the highest point, but I am starting to feel distinctly unsure of myself. Mist suddenly rolls in and envelopes us in its grey clamminess, immediately turning the small crags ahead into towering, menacing cliffs. The way ahead turns a tall rock on the outside, requiring two or three exposed-looking steps on what has become very slippery ground. I decide that I have seen enough, and announce that I am turning back; the others can carry on if they want, I will meet them back down at the hut. Group solidarity prevails though, and all five of us turn back. With my confidence gone, the slippery way back to the path junction at the foot of the glacier seems ten times more difficult than it did going up. Every muscle in my legs tenses up; 24 hours later, my thighs are still complaining about the twenty or so minutes that it took to get back onto solid ground.

Despite having turned back, all of us agree that it was a worthwhile thing to have attempted, and that the scenary made it worthwhile despite the cloud. In dry, sunny conditions I am fairly certain that we would have carried on. Instead, we walk back down to the hut, where we have a break to drink water and chat with the warden, who is enjoying an easy day with few or no guests booked in for the night – snow is forecast for this evening, he tells us, that will keep customers away. The job is never boring though, he says, even on a day without clients, there is always something that needs repairing, a path that needs waymarking or a helicopter full of food and drink to unload.

We follow yesterday's route back down the valley, towards a sky that is becoming increasingly heavy with cloud. As we descend, unusually, the temperature drops: the day is getting colder and colder, and suddenly the forecast snow does not seem such an odd idea. The clouds become thicker and more oppressive; the slabby cliffs that glistened in yesterday morning's sun are now as black and sinister as the walls of Mordor. We speculate about how many minutes it will be before we feel the first raindrops; I guess six minutes, the friend with the string boots, more optimistic, thinks that we will stay dry. She is right: we arrive at the bus stop above Wiggen at three, and it is still not raining. Forty minutes later, as the sound of the post-bus horn announces its arrival, we are still dry. Another two minutes, we are all inside the bus… and the heavens open. On a weekend when rain was forecast for both days, we have managed to avoid it completely, and are all in agreement that we have been very lucky.

Needless to say, back in Lucerne, I get absolutely soaked walking home from the station!


24 August 2014

A short walk on the Regenflüeli

Time: 3.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 625 metres
Height loss: 625 metres

Eigenthal – Rosenboden – Regenflüeli – Ober Honegg - Eigenthal

I have planned a short walk this Sunday, a walk with two very specific purposes: firstly, to break in a new pair of walking boots, and secondly, to see how my sore tendon will stand up to a bit of exertion after my misadventure in the Engadin almost two weeks ago.

I have decided to take it very slowly today, not wanting to put my leg under too much pressure. The walk itself will only take about four hours, so I can take my time, do some sketching, enjoy the late summer sun. But when the alarm goes off at 7:30, the first thing I hear is the noise of rain outside. Not just a shower either, the sky is uniform grey and the cloud is low. I go back to bed, but an hour later there is no change. I abandon the idea of going to the mountains – I can always break my boots in by walking round Lucerne town centre, even though that might look a bit odd – and go to sleep again.

When I wake for the third time, at 9:45, the sun is shining. I am annoyed with myself: had I got up two hours ago, I would already be up in the hills enjoying this sunshine. Now, by the time I have had breakfast and got the bus up to Eigenthal, it will be lunchtime, a bit late to be setting out for a walk! On the other hand, if I drive rather than waiting for the next bus, I could be up there by eleven… and although I am usually a staunch defender of public transport, on this occasion I throw my principles to the wind and set off by car. The road to Eigenthal is closed as a result of storm damage, and I have to make a substantial detour via Malters and Schwarzenberg to reach the starting point of the walk. The area suffered very serious damage from torrential rain while I was away on holiday, and I will see plenty of evidence of this damage today.

At Eigenthal, I have a rather unpleasant experience. I need a 5 franc coin to pay for the car park. I only have a 10 franc note, but a couple pulls up on a motorbike and I ask them, in my best German, if they have change. The woman starts to look for money but her companion stops her and says to me, in a very unfriendly tone of voice: "Speak to me in Swiss German". I repeat (putting on what must be a horribly fake Swiss German accent) than I need money for the parking meter, then apologetically explain that I am English and that the local Lucerne dialect is not yet on the curriculum of schools in the UK. The man's attitude changes immediately on learning that I am English (I can only assume he thought I was German); he becomes more friendly and his girlfriend insists on giving me 5 francs with nothing in exchange. It's my first experience of anti-foreigner behaviour in Switzerland, and it rather spoils the start of the walk. 

A pastoral start in Eigenthal
The walk begins in a pastoral setting, as I follow a little stream across fields where cows are looking after some very small calves. The ground is wet and spongy underfoot, and it will only get worse… As the gradient steepens, to say that the path is a bit boggy would be doing it a profound injustice. Every step brings sloshing, glooping noises as I sink into the mud up to my ankles. At least the new boots are going to get a good test of the quality of their waterproofing! Discarding an old pair of hiking boots is always a wrench, but during my two weeks' hiking in Bavaria and Austria, I realised that the ones I have been using since 2010 had reached the end of the road, having become completely unable to grip any more on wet rock. I have been using the same model of boots for the last 15 years, but this time I was unable to find the same ones, and have taken the daring step of switching to a completely different brand. They seem comfortable though, which is reassuring.

The initial steep climb is mostly in forest, where I overtake a group of four people who are looking for mushrooms. The damp conditions would certainly appear to be suited to this activity, and they seem to be enjoying some success . The woodland then gives way to a steep, boggy pasture where the going is made slow by the need to navigate to find the relatively dry bits – these being the bits where I only sink in up to the ankle, rather than all the way to the top of my boots. Finally I reach the farmhouse at Rosenboden, beyond which things temporarily get a bit easier.

The Regenflüeli from Rosenboden
Now the path runs horizontally across steep grass slopes. The sound of cowbells wafts up from the valley, beyond which the rock walls of the Pilatus' north face rise up threateningly before disappearing into the clouds. The sunshine which greeted my third attempt to get out of bed is shining brightly away to the north, but up here in the hills, it is still very much overcast. The Regenflüeli, today's summit, appears up ahead above a line of greyish-brown cliffs, and I stop for twenty minutes to sketch the landscape.

Above the next farm, Gumm, the path deteriorates severely. Everywhere here is evidence of the storm of three weeks ago: there are landslides everywhere, and in between the landslides, rushing water has cut deep, muddy ravines into the ground. The path itself seems to be the muddiest part of this whole mudscape, and I spend an uncomfortable half-hour working my way up a valley, then up an equally muddy ridge until the large cross on the Regenflüeli's summit comes into view. 

A bit muddy...
The view is superb despite this hill's very modest altitude of 1582 metres. Northwards are the sun-bathed lowlands and the lakes that dot their valleys. Also in that direction the urban area around Lucerne, stretching away north along the Reuss valley in a seemingly uninterrupted mass of buildings. Further east, one of Lake Lucerne's many arms is visible, its blue water spread out underneath the long range of the Rigi. Closer at hand, the Pilatus is still hiding its head in the clouds. Tiny dots move up and down across the sky as the old cable-car that goes up to its summit from Kriens does its job for almost the last time: next weekend it will close for good, to be replaced by a new cable car next spring.

The summit of the Regenflüeli
I have lunch on the Regenflüeli's summit, then leave a sketch in the summit book, a sketch which I have to finish in rather a hurry as it starts to rain, a reminder that this hill's name includes the German word for rain. I definitely do not fancy the idea of going back down the mudbath of a path that I came up, so I head off straight down the steep, grassy east face of the hill, aiming for the farmhouse at Gumm below. It proves to be a good move; although the slope is steep and the ground is gorged with water, it's not half as unpleasant as the way up.

Back at Gumm, I opt for a different way down to the valley, but it is not an option that I would recommend: the farm track that leads down via Ober Honegg is steep, and for most of the way has been paved with concrete blocks to facilitate vehicle access to the farms. Still, the day has served a useful purpose before a more strenuous mountain excursion next weekend, and both of the tests have been passed. I have no blisters, the boots will need some more walking in but seem to be comfortable enough. And, maybe more importantly, my sore leg has shown no signs of playing up again. Not the most exciting day out maybe – and probably the muddiest I have ever experienced – but it has served its purpose.